William J. Mitchell’s “Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era” (1994)

I’ve given away all my books three times in my life, and every time I do so I think to myself, “Hey! I wish I didn’t give that one away.” Today that book is William J. Mitchell’s Reconfigured Eye (1994) — which was way, way, way ahead of its time on describing the long history of how images have been used as “proof” but were actually manipulated. This practice long predates the digital era so it’s especially interesting. So … I’m adding it back to my collection! —JM

Now, the process of photographic image construction is highly standardized, its representational commitments are well known, and the intentional relationships of standard photographs to their subject matter are relatively straightforward and unambiguous. Furthermore, if one accepts the Foucaultian thesis that modern science reversed the scholastic view of an assertion’s authority as something derived from its author and substituted the notion that matters of fact are impersonal things, then it becomes obvious that the impersonal process of photography answered to a dominant conception of what the coinage of communication should be. Thus the rules that societies have evolved for acceptable and effective usage of photographs in acts of communication are both clear (if not always explicit) and widely understood. These rules valorize photographs as uniquely reliable and transparent conveyors of visual information and concomitantly structure familiar practices of graphic production and exchange–among them the practices of photojournalism, feature illustration, advertising photography, photo-illustrated fiction, the legal use of photographic evidence, the family snapshot, photographic portraiture, photo identification, medical imaging, and art photography. Photography has established a powerful orthodoxy of graphic communication. 

But digital images–as we have seen–have much less standardized production processes than photographs. These processes are less subject to institutional policing of uniformity, offer more opportunities for human intervention, and are far more complex and varied in their range of possible representational commitments. Furthermore, digital images can stand in a wider variety of intentional relationships to the objects that they depict. And, because they are so easily distributed, copied, transformed, and recombined, they can readily be appropriated (or misappropriated) and put to uses for which they were not originally intended. Thus they can be used to yield new forms of understanding, but they can also disturb and disorient by blurring comfortable boundaries and by encouraging transgression of rules on which we have come to rely. Digital imaging technology can provide openings for principled resistance to established social and cultural practices, and at the same time it can create possibilities for cynical subversion of those practices. 

The growing circulation of the new graphic currency that digital imaging technology mints is relentlessly destabilizing the old photographic orthodoxy, denaturing the established rules of graphic communication, and disrupting the familiar practices of image production and exchange. This condition demands, with increasing urgency, a fundamental critical reappraisal of the uses to which we put graphic artifacts, the values we therefore assign to them, and the ethical principles that guide our transactions with them. 

William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye